Friday Hoyden: Beatrice

Move still, B&W, Acker hides under a kitchen bench, while two women talk in the background.

Amy Acker in the recent Joss Whedon film

The way women are treated by men in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is awful, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is an anti-women play. This is a play that exposes everything that is foolish and harmful about fearing female sexuality, or about doubting female capacity for steadfastness.

While Margaret is used and Hero is abused, it is Beatrice who is given the role of decrying the way the men wantonly allow their greater privilege to destroy the innocent, and their rank to keep them safe from recriminations. There is no cheap female rivalry fuelling this plot, Beatrice’s loyalty to her betrayed cousin is absolute. She states openly what is wrong with a world that lets a woman be ruined by rumour.

B&W of three women in C19th costume with parasols.

That’s Australian Googie Withers back there, listening

Beatrice is full of wisecracks, says whatever she thinks, and holds centre stage for a good number of the large group scenes, and yet she is spoken of as “a pleasant spirited woman” with a “merry heart” and not criticised for being unbecomingly loud or difficult. Everyone except Benedick seems to adore her just the way she is.

The sparring couple whose mutual attraction is obvious to everyone else, despite their protests to the contrary, has remained one of fiction’s most enduring and popular tropes, but no source has been identified preceding Beatrice and Benedick. There are only a handful of records from audience members who saw Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime, yet one of the very few we have is a page belonging to King James I stating that the performance about to be staged for his pleasure is William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The king has scribbled “Benedicte and Betteris” in the margin. Beatrice has performed the remarkable feat of being smart and yet remaining perpetually popular.

Benedick is given more chances to speak directly to the audience, and win them over with his charm, but as amusing as he is in the first few scenes, he cannot become a hero until he makes the decision to align himself with Beatrice, and separate himself from the abusive practices of the men. He doesn’t become a real man until he stops thinking manliness is about aggression and posing, and realises it is about listening to a woman, trusting her, and appearing openly as her partner.

Beatrice is converted to love and conventional heterosexual union, but no one asks her to change who she fundamentally is. She is never asked to rein herself in, and never agrees to give up her voice. She is an amazing showpiece role model for women to stay true to themselves and one another.

I have a review up at my place of the recent Sport for Jove production in the Blue Mountains.

To conclude, here is a tour of some particularly delightful Beatrices.

Still from movie, Emma Thomson sitting in a tree, holding a book.

Who could ever forget Emma Thompson’s incandescent performance?

Tamsin in black dress holds arm up, while men and women listen to her.

Tamsin Greig did it 1950s teddy girl style

Middle-aged Indian woman and man wearing white sitting on a swing together, laughing.

Meera Syal in a recent English production set in India

Tate in overalls, smoking, Tennant in naval whites, both with sunglasses.

Catherine Tate and David Tennant must have been a riot


White couple in C19th clothes, she sitting on table, he on chair.

Judi Dench and Donald Sinden in 1976. She later directed Branagh in the play

Jones & Redgrave, both wearing glasses, clasp hands and lean towards each other.

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones were seen as an experiment in whether an older couple worked in the roles




Categories: arts & entertainment

Tags: , , ,

14 replies

  1. I have to say, though, it has always bugged me that Hero agrees to marry what’s-his-name, after he has made it blatant that he doesn’t give a damn about her, only her Holy Virginity and the bragging rights it gives him. I keep wishing she’d tell him where to go.
    I do understand that even if it had ever occurred to Shakespeare to write a different ending (unlikely), the tropes of the times required Shakespeare to do it this way. Heck, three centuries later, audiences were _still_ requiring the totally unrealistic romantic ending: think of the alternate endings to A Doll’s House and Pygmalion (or the sequels to Gone With The Wind.)
    BTW, did anyone notice Josh Wheadon’s little visual jab in that final scene? When what’s-his-name is saying something like “even if she were an Ethiope”, the camera view casually includes an African-American woman in the crowd.

  2. Yes, AMM, as you would expect, that line is almost always cut (the other one is Benedick’s “If I do not love her I am a jew”, which is usually amended to “fool”). I thought the look she gave him when he said it was priceless, and made a bolder choice than just pretending the line wasn’t there.
    In the Cheek by Jowl production a few years back Saskia Reeves’ Beatrice was still so angry with Claudio at the end she wouldn’t even shake his hand when Benedick says “come, let us be friends”. It’s as if it’s Hero’s job in the play to be the compliant good girl, and Beatrice’s to tell us all why that sucks.

  3. AMM, There was an audible gasp from the audience at that line when I saw it at a preview with a cinema full of Whedonites.

  4. Haven’t seen Josh Whedon’s version yet.
    I have to disagree that Claudio doesn’t care about Hero and that Hero is foolish to agree to marry him. Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontes, Eliot, Trollope, Gaskell all echo the prevailing social rule: women have to be the property of someone, the best they can hope for is that he’s not a complete bastard. Fathers sold their daughters to men in order to gain advantage socially or materially. Claudio’s sorrow on finding that Hero was not shopsoiled goods and that he had wronged her is an indicator that she might have an okay life once sold off to him.
    Shakespeare wrote plays that uphold the prevailing social prejudices, but includes characters who undermine it. I’m always sad when the socially undermining character has to fall into line. Ah, shame. They nearly got away.
    Beatrice is my all time favourite Shakespeare woman. When she tells Benedick to kill Claudio, my blood runs cold. Awesome.

  5. The only version I’ve seen is the Thompson-Branagh one, and that was a long time ago (I’ve still got the VHS tape somewhere).
    I’d love to see Catherine Tate and David Tennant. I’m having visions of Donna Noble giving the Doctor the complete runaround. 🙂

  6. What on earth got the mod filter’s attention in my last comment?
    Anyway, this is my favourite depiction of the play. For some reason I always think this Benedick looks sort of like Ken Branagh.

    • What on earth got the mod filter’s attention in my last comment?

      Your ISP changed your dynamic IP number, so you were treated as a new commentor and diverted to the moderation queue.

  7. Nothing to say on Beatrice, tiggers?
    The good news about the Tate/Tennant production (the director of which BTW was Josie Rourke, who also just did the Hiddleston Coriolanus that got broadcast all over) is that you can rent or buy it as an online download via Digital Theatre. Yay for modern technology!

  8. Your ISP changed your dynamic IP number, so you were treated as a new commentor and diverted to the moderation queue.

    Strewth. Gotta love teh internets.

  9. Watched the Whedon version last night.
    Why didn’t he remove the ‘Ethiope’ slur? Placing the black woman as the audience for it is pointed: but he removed the ‘Jew’ slur (because he can’t place a disapproving audience in the frame?) Why is one slur sacred Shakespeare text/context which he shouldn’t be mucking around with but the other is unacceptable?

  10. @eilish, of course I’m only applying my own take on his reasoning here, but I imagine the inability to put a disapproving audience in the frame (as it occurs in soliloquy) is *exactly* why he cut the “Jew” reference. It would be terrible to do it without giving it a problematising context. Keeping the Ethiope slur couldn’t be because of a desire to treat the text as sacred, as he’s freely cut it to ribbons elsewhere. My guess is that it came from a sense that it’s better to honestly address the fact that Shakespeare isn’t always the modern man we would like him to be, than to make him into a paper saint.

  11. Or quite possibly because it didn’t occur to him that it was a slur.

  12. It’s like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huck Finn”: we can read about the racism and say to ourselves “but it’s changed now”. Except it’s not.
    I watched the 1994 BBC production. They keep both lines: but everyone is wearing hose and doublets and Benedict’s beard looks like something from ‘Duck Dynasty’. The audience knows we are viewing the play written for those times.
    Whedon’s play is set in his own home. We are seeing an old tale made modern. We can apply modern standards for slurs. I was impressed with the way he showed us Margaret’s lack of enjoyment of her encounter with Borachio: good comment on the role of women as property. Hero must be virgin because she will be owned by one man, but Margaret can be ‘wanton’ because she is owned by the group of men. I don’t feel the disapproving audience is enough of a riposte, not when racism is still so prevalent and acceptable.(I can’t believe he didn’t think it was a slur!)
    In an interview, Whedon specifically said he removed the ‘Jew’ slur despite his belief you don’t cut Shakespeare (except to make the movie watchable. Poor Dogberry.)
    I wish he had removed both. It’s not like he’s cutting “Kill Claudio!”

%d bloggers like this: